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Gardening with moths in mind


Since lockdown my daughter has completed her Wildlife conservation degree and we have spent a lot of time together. She has brought me more up to date about moths and my lessons have continued and more nights and early starts than I care to remember have passed with me by my daughter, Victoria’s side: illuminated by ‘black’ light from her moth trap.

Moths to many of us conjure up the image of holes in clothes, especially in wool jumpers but I have been amazed by the number and variety that have graced our garden. More on that later.
In Gt Britain and Ireland there are reported to be 874 species of macro moths and 1627 recorded species of micro moth. [ref Field guide to the Micro-moths of Gt Britain and Ireland by Phil Sterling and Mark Parsons].
So what is the difference between macro and micro moths?
Families of moths which tend to feature small species go under micro moths and many are little brown jobs [lbj] such as the common clothes moth Tineola bisselliella, whilst their larger ‘brothers’ go under the macro moths. But beware there are some big Micro’s [small magpie Anania hortulata ]

and small Macro’s clouded border [Lomaspilis marginata] both moths have a wing span of approximately 12mm.

This is a typical page of lbj micro moths from the previously referenced field guide.
This is a typical page of her moth guides

Patterns are subtle and if the moth has been out and about for a few days they can be tatty and faded. There are dietary differences too; micros tend to feed on pollen whilst macros feed on nectar. Many of the lbj’s can only be identified 100% by using a microscope and the dissection of their genitalia. They can only be recorded at family or if lucky at the genus level. Eg genus Yponomeuta a micro ermine moth [not a lbj however]

So when is a moth not a moth? Answer – when it is a butterfly.
How do you tell the difference? As usual there are general rules:

Nocturnal fliers
Hold wings horizontal at rest
Feathery or comb like antennae

Diurnal fliers
Hold wings vertical at rest
Club like antennae

Moths don’t always follow the rules. The early thorn, Selenia dentaria holds its wings vertical,

The burnet moth Zygaena filipendulae is diurnal.

Micro moths are thought to have evolved first followed by the macro’s then the butterflies. They all lay eggs on their chosen food source, usually plants but some prefer lichen, fungi or flesh. It is the caterpillars that do the damage as they eat their way through our plants. Caterpillars are often superbly camouflaged and look like a twig or they can be brightly coloured to warn of their unpleasant taste.
Cinnabar moth

Some mimic snakes [Elephant Hawk moth Deilephila elpenor ]

Others are hairy, the garden tiger moth is itchily so and others smooth to the touch.

After several skin castings they are ready to pupate as a chrysalis [hard dry skin] or a cocoon [wrapped in silken threads] and emerge as an adult, ready to continue the species. Some don’t even have mouth parts and survive only long enough to mate and then die. Other species have females that are wingless or have vestigial wings, the winter moth Operophtera brumata is one such moth. We put grease bands around our fruit trees to prevent the female crawling up and laying her eggs in the buds.

Now back to our garden. Shortly after lockdown happened Victoria bought a moth trap and since then at least 3 nights a week she has set it up, wrapped up and sat outside waiting. There have been nights where she has had the company of hedgehogs, pipistrelle bats and a pair of tawny owls as well as the dratted midges. My role has been pretty standard: mugs of hot chocolate, book and camera holder as well as supplier of anti-histamine cream. Towards June, mornings started at 4.30 am to record and photograph the captives before releasing them back into the garden. Mugs of tea replaced the chocolate and robins, blackbirds, blue and great tits were waiting for the chance to steal a take away meal. Surprisingly few were taken, moths can fly fast when they want to!
So what have we seen and photographed, photos by Victoria and myself. From 31st March to August 10th 114 species have been identified and if we include the pheromone trap, that includes the currant clear wing moth.

Currant clear wing

Over time the species caught has changed, Hebrew characters peaked in April along with the May bug or cockchafer beetle in May, carpets and pugs are steady visitors, as are poplar, elephant and hummingbird hawk moths in July.
Poplar hawk moth

and a closer view of those amazing antennae.

Elephant hawk moth

What we will get in the coming months is exciting and the garden looks very different in the early dawn and at dusk.
Along with this insight into the moths is the long list of plants these often beautiful insects rely on. Recently their role is finally being recognised and is being talked about on gardening programmes and in the media. Whilst they can be a pest as a caterpillar this is far outweighed by their beneficial role as pollinators. As with bees and butterflies nectar rich single flowers are much better feeding stations especially those that release nectar at night. Buddleia is not so good for moths sadly. British native plants play a vital role: a few moth food plants are mullein, cudweed, Lychnis, Campion. Viper’s bugloss, green alkanet and willowherb. If you can find a ‘wild space’ please do. Moths help pollinate flowers, they provide food for our small garden birds and in many cases are pretty visitors to our gardens.
Just a small selection of moths visiting the garden.
Green Silver Lines

Brimstone moth [not to be confused with brimstone butterfly

A 20 plume moth

Dark arches on Pyracantha flowers

The gold spot whose patches are truly metallic and golden.

A hairy and freshly emerged Ruby Tiger moth

a lovely zebra stripped legged White Satin moth.

I hope you get an idea of the wonders flitting around the garden, mainly unseen by us.

More blog posts by seaburngirl

Previous post: Great Yorkshire Country Count

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Hello Eileen a very interesting blog. The photos are brilliant.
Congratulations to your daughter on gaining her degree.
Love Marjorie

15 Aug, 2020


I will pass you congrats on. She is finding it hard to get a job in the 'field' though. She is a little despondent at present. But in time she will get there.

I have been really fascinated by her enthusiasm.

15 Aug, 2020


What a wonderfully informative blog. and I wish your hardworking girl every success.
It's amazing what is in our gardens that we never see and we should make as much effort to accomodate the moths as we do the butterflies. Thank you for pointing this out.

15 Aug, 2020


A fascinating glimpse into the secret world of moths. I really enjoyed reading this Eileen. So the distinction between moth and butterfly is blurred. Now if you consider the skipper in my 'question', it's moth-like in appearance yet butterfly-like in behavior. Well done Victoria.

16 Aug, 2020


What an informative blog, excellent pics. Inspired me to search for moths in my garden if only I didn't fall asleep on the sofa trying to watch the news on the TV by 10pm. Often see a daytime Burnet.

16 Aug, 2020


thank you for your lovely compliments. we often find moths at rest on the walls during the day. they hide in plain sight sometimes. we often find interesting ones flying around the security lights from about 8.30 at this time of year.

16 Aug, 2020


So interesting,Eileen,and Congratulations to Victoria,on gaining her degree,I wish her well for her future.Also,well done mum,for supporting her ,throughout the nights/mornings,when you should have been in bed ! Lol I found it really fascinating,and had no idea,just how much they contribute to Nature,although I was aware of some of the facts.Some lovely Moths there,so I shall endeavour to keep a look out for some of them around our'dusk to dawn' lights in my garden..:o)

16 Aug, 2020


at this time of year there are lots of yellow underwings about, quite large moths [cabbage white sized] that seem to enjoy the agapanthus.

16 Aug, 2020


Wonderful blog Eileen - added to favourites. Your
daughter ‘s work is impressive. I bet you would both like “Where the Crowdads Sing” a book about a young girl who is fascinated by the natural world.

Thanks for writing.

16 Aug, 2020’ll be getting your degree by proxy! Brilliant blog! :)

16 Aug, 2020


thanks ladies. I don't know that book Sheila but I will look out for it.
I got my Bot/Zoo degree 40 yrs ago Karen so I hope she absorbed some of my stuff by osmosis. She still needs to work on her plant id though ;o)
There were only 2 modules on conservation on our course back then but it gave me a very wide base for my career. I did a lot of ecology with the 6th form classes so I had kept my hand in. Toria has all the computer skills with plotting using satellite devices etc that I cant get my head around.

But out in the field it is still better to use books with drawings than photographs apparently.

16 Aug, 2020


Thank you for posting, Eileen, I found your blog so very educational. The pics are fascinating too, there a some very ‘pretty’ coloured moths out there.
A big well done and congratulations to your daughter!
I think this year has been very disconcerting for a lot of young people, she’ll find something soon.

16 Aug, 2020


What a great blog - thank you - going into favourites. Am being severely tempted to make a light box and see what we have here! Again sending best wishes for Victoria in her job hunt.

16 Aug, 2020


a quick easy 'trap' is to hang a pale sheet on a clothes line with a battery torch shining onto it. you will get plenty visiting it.

thanks for wishing her well. Another application has been sent in tonight for Rutland water this time. She is not limiting her self geographically either.

16 Aug, 2020


1.30 am we were up turning off the trap due to torrential rain. even so there were 38 moths in the trap. We checked the id as we didn't want them flying around the conservatory. no new species but there is tomorrow to look forward too.

17 Aug, 2020


Congratulations to Victoria, I hope she finds a placement somewhere Seaburn, Rutland Water is only five miles from where I live, I'm sending good vibes that way for her...As you probably know moths are on my list with the spiders, I'm still a wuss, however I'm okay when outside, its my bedroom I don't want to see them, I've realised as I got older how many really beautiful looking ones there are, I'm keeping my eye on my favourite fuschia, it was eaten away this time last year, I think you were one of the first to tell me what the critters were , Elephant Hawk Moth Caterpillar, scared me at first as I'd never seen any before, , I don't think I'll ever be brave enough to sit out and study them as close up as you have been doing but thankyou for sharing so many interesting facts and photo's.....

17 Aug, 2020


ooh yes please send lots of good vibes. she is on a chain saw course this week to add that to her cv in the hopes it will give her the edge over others. if nothing else we can utilise her skills in the garden ;o)

17 Aug, 2020


Interesting tip re the sheet Eileen! I have noticed that if you hang out a yellow sheet it gets visited by more insects than white ones. But I haven't tried leaving one out at night. (But you can sit down at a light box...)

17 Aug, 2020


you can sit next to the sheet on the line too haha. Neighbours may raise an eyebrow. Ours actually asked if Toria was ok as she'd seen her sitting there staring at a sheet! Though we don't sit out all night about an hour or two but the midges usually drive us in.

18 Aug, 2020


Neighbours can't see us so we could sit out for hours unobserved. I feel the cold these days though...

Just remembered my one and only moth photo - have added it to my pictures (shame I lost all the old ones when I had my access problem recently - thankfully still have them on file) Added it for you as you didn't have that one.

18 Aug, 2020


that is so beautiful thanks for posting it.

19 Aug, 2020


Every day is a school day, except I never learned so much at school! Thank you for such a fascinating blog and beautiful photos and all good luck for your daughter in her future! And well done on being a great Mum!

19 Aug, 2020


Wow very interesting, congrats to your daughter :-)

20 Aug, 2020


wow, brilliant blog, very interesting and some lovely photo's of the little critters, we seem to get a lot of moths around us at the moment and there is a pair of bats in one of our houses enjoying the feast

20 Aug, 2020


A superb blog Seaburn, congratulations to your daughter, while there are youngsters like her there is hope for the planet and our native insects. Hopefully everyone will have a go at leaving a bit of weedy ground for these and other insects. I was, when I was really young (Wow, how long ago?) afraid of Moths, something about them blundering about, but decided that it was ridiculous, so got a few books and left the light on and studied those that came to the window. From inside firstly! Love the look of the book that you quoted and several others that come up on searches and are related. Might be spending a fortune on books soon, all thanks to you! But the blog was lovely, long may you carry on finding all those different moths.

21 Aug, 2020


we were out again this morning. Yellow underwings are in the majority, 37 today, but some other lovely ones. The ruby tiger, gold spot, willow beauty were making their presence felt as well as a few that daggers but without dissecting their genitalia not sure which ones. One blackbird got suitable brave to sit next to us to snaffle a couple.

21 Aug, 2020


I love moths & butterflies & so enjoyed your blog & photos. I have always wanted a light box. Where does one buy one? I will have a go with the sheet & light tonight.
I hope your daughter finds the right niche soon. She deserves to.

23 Aug, 2020


she bought hers from the one stop nature shop in Burnham deepdale in Norfolk. this is their link to the shop.

Yes she needs that perfect niche doesn't she. glad you enjoyed the blog.

23 Aug, 2020

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